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Some Botanical Cures in Mormon Folk Medicine: An Analysis

Utah Historical Quarterly

Vol. 44, 1976, No. 4

Some Botanical Cures in Mormon Folk Medicine:An Analysis


WHILE EXAMINING A RATHER sizeable collection of folk beliefs in the University of Utah Folklore Archives not long ago, I came across an interesting cure for pneumonia, which I repeat verbatim here:

To cure pneumonia, get your wife to wear the same pair of underpants for one month. Then put the underpants in a bowl (of specific dimensions) of warm water and wash them (with some particular kind of homemade soap). Drink the water left in the bowl after washing. 

1 use this example of "folk medicine" for good reason: other than the fact that the informant called the cure an old Karelian remedy, the interested scholar knows absolutely nothing about the circumstances surrounding the interview, if the informant believed in the cure, or where he got it, which, in a sense, makes this rather sensational bit of information, be it hoax or fact, virtually useless.

According to Alan Dundes in his well-known "Texture, Text, and Context": "One reason for collecting context is that only if such data is provided can any serious attempt be made to explain why a particular text is used in a particular situation."  Dundes here was discussing riddles, but later he asserted that "the collection of context is essential for all genres of folklore. . . ."  Folklorists have "traveled far" through the promptings of Dundes and others, but even today the concept of context is paid nothing more than lip service by many folklorists, especially in the realm of folk belief.

In calling for more contextual study I am not insinuating archives are useless; I am saying they could be made more useful. In my own collecting of folk cures among the Mormons, I was, like many others, impressed both by the variety of cures and their oftentimes unorthodox application. However, as the title of this article indicates, I have not attempted to collect every example in Utah of folk medicine, or even of one particular cure. Rather, my method is analysis, and beyond the unique, I think, lies the question, again, of how such cures affect the group or groups that exercise them, why they are used, when they are used, and how they are used.

Most of my informants hail from the fairly small, highly conservative, central Utah community of American Fork. My interest in botanical cures among the Mormons was originally piqued by a middle-aged woman in that town who wears onion slices on her neck to alleviate arthritis. According to the informant:

I get arthritis in my neck, and when I do I slice up a large onion [any kind will do as long as it's large], put the slices in a cloth, and wrap it around my neck. The arthritis will draw the juice right out of the onion. When I first started I had to leave it on all night, but now an hour or two will do it.

An interesting aspect of this botanical cure is that the informant has discovered a cumulative healing effect in the onion slices that improves with use. In 1972 a student at the University of Utah collected an onion cure in Springville, Utah, similar in method to my informant's: "You take an onion, slice it, put it on a piece of cloth and wrap it around the kid's neck. I'd tried everything else [for severe croup], and it worked."  My informant also uses slices of onions folded in cabbage leaves and tied on the back to alleviate pain. In her own words: "Make an onion poultice and wrap it around what hurts." She mentioned other botanical cures, such as cucumbers removing liver spots from the skin, potato poultices being good for gout, and grape juice being an excellent blood purifier. She claims her husband was cured of something much like rheumatic fever by drinking sugarless grape juice; but the onion cures are her forte, and in them she is a firm believer.

She became interested in folk medicine when her husband developed ulcers, which sugarless grape juice helped alleviate. Interestingly, she has gleaned most of her folk medical knowledge from books, which would seem to preclude, at least partially, the oral and aural aspects of the lore; but her own adaptations of the onion cures, for example, have transcended book knowledge.  She explained carefully that it is the juice in the onion that alleviates the pain of arthritis. The juice, she claims, is actually drawn into her neck, and when she is finished with a treatment the onions are almost completely dried. Therefore, as my informant explained, one slices the onion in a way most advantageous for the extraction of juices.

When I asked her if she knew anyone else in town who used these remedies she told me she didn't know many people, "and besides, most people laugh when you talk to them about this." She also told me that the family has no doctor bills. For her, the onion remedies work much better than the pain pills her doctor once prescribed, with none of the aftereffects. She nearly passed out in the bank one day after taking a pain pill.

Use of onions in folk medicine is widespread. Two other informants from American Fork, a married couple, eighty-five and eighty-one respectively, also knew of many onion cures. The woman had used onions for many kinds of poultices, and someone she knew, whose name she had forgotten, "tied the feet right up in onion poultices and it would draw the sickness right out of the body through the feet." Her father made cough syrup out of the ubiquitous honey-and-onion concoction. She says: "I know that some families used onions a lot in the early days. Some said they didn't know how to get well until they got into their onions."

In her "Pioneer Remedies from Western Kansas," Amy Lathrop reported, but did not delineate, onion cures in that state—especially for treatment of croup in cough syrup form.  In his "Pioneer Mormon Remedies," Austin E. Fife reported the wrapping of a sore breast in cabbage leaves to alleviate pain but mentioned few specific onion cures.

University of Utah archives are replete with onion cures, one of which says: "Cut a raw onion into small pieces and tape them to the skin with Scotch Tape. Onions, according to Mrs. Latsos are antibiotic and take the bruise away."  Here, the usual cloth binder for the poultice has been supplanted by Scotch Tape.

According to Eddie W. Wilson in an excellent article called "The Onion in Folk Belief": ". . . it is evident that the onion has not been surpassed in the realm of folk belief by any other plant."  According to Wilson:

In religious legend, the onion has been associated with the Garden of Eden and with Paradise. There is a tradition in the East that when Satan stepped out of the Garden of Eden after the Fall of Man, onions sprang up from the spot where he placed his right foot, and garlic from where his left foot touched. 

Further: "In its alleged battle against infection, the onion is said by English folk to act as an absorbent or purifier."  As already noted, to my American Fork informant, it was not the onion that was the absorbent, but the arthritic joints of her neck, even though the onions, to her, did act in a sense as a purifier, or purger of pain.

According to Wilson, the Marathi of India believe that when a severe illness comes bread and onions should be eaten.  In comparison, two young sisters from American Fork told me jokingly that when their parents were married in the Salt Lake Temple the groom noticed his bride had a bad cold and told her to eat an onion sandwich. It cured the cold.

Although the old couple mentioned earlier knew a fair number of onion cures, their specialties seemed to be potatoes and Brigham tea. In their family memory book is a section concerning one Lucian Jacob who had become a widower (ca. 1868). About Lucian is written:

After returning home Lucian hired different girls and women to keep house for himself and remaining three children. It was almost impossible to get a dependable person. While one woman was making soap a serious accident happened. Lucian, the youngest boy, fell into the boiling soap. Some flesh was completely cooked. Maria Gerber, the town doctor, saved the child's life by applying poultices of scraped potatoes. She worked over him day and night. 

In retelling this instance from her own memory, the informant told me the burns were completely healed by the potato poultice; and according to her, this remedy was used widely by Mormon pioneers for all sorts of burns. This particular story is well known by the daughter of the couple and by their grandchildren.

According to the daughter, as a young girl she frequently worked in the fields and the family garden. One day when weeding onions, she received a severe sunburn along a three-inch strip on her back where her blouse and pants separated. Her mother finely grated a whole potato onto a strip of cheesecloth and applied it to the burn. "It pulled the fire right out—cooked the potato," she said. "It was done well enough to eat." Two of the grandchildren told me this story also, saying "there was so much heat in the sunburn that the potatoes were almost completely done —they could have been eaten."

If the onion has not been surpassed in the realm of folk belief by any other plant, the potato certainly runs a close second in Utah and the West. Amy Lathrop said:

One man, badly burned about the face and eyes by an arc welding torch was blinded and could not find a doctor at the time. A sympathetic friend made poultices of raw potato parings, which she said was the best and quickest way to draw out the "heat." 

As with the American Fork remedies, the potato poultices here actually drained the heat. Also, said Mrs. Lathrop: "One veracious woman tells me she has used thin potato parings for both corns and calluses on her feet and they remove the pain or 'fire.' " 

According to an informant in Salt Lake City: "Some people I used to know believed that if you boil potatoes and leave them in their skins and then put them around the feet the cold would go away."  This cure for a cold is very close in method and results to the onions-around-thefeet cure for "sickness." Another informant said: "My family has a remedy for arthritis. You are supposed to hold a raw potato wherever you have the arthritis. After a few days, the potato will become petrified from whatever was causing the arthritis. Just keep putting raw potatoes on until it is gone." 

About folk cures for arthritis Wayland D. Hand has written that "curing rheumatism by various kinds of absorptive measures is common."  This is certainly the case among Utah Mormons. For the American Fork couple both onions and potatoes take the pain out of the body, while for the informant using onion slices on her neck, the juice of the onion was drawn into the afflicted part. Peggy Anderson, one informant already quoted from the University of Utah Folklore Archives, is vague about the petrifaction of the potato, but it seems likely that the petrifaction of the joint by disease was passed onto the vegetable. In like manner runs this cure: "Put a piece of potato in a small bag and hang it around your neck to ward off rheumatism. When potato goes hard, replace with another piece of potato."  A potato cure from Kansas is much like this Utah cure:

One woman of eighty years said her father and others were wont to carry a small potato in their pockets to ward off rheumatism. Her father carried his for years. It became very hard, but he never suffered rheumatism pains. As her brother grew up, he, too, started carrying a potato. 

Finally, Vance Randolph recorded the following in his Ozark Superstitions:

. . . there are men in Arkansas who are always careful to plant onions and potatoes on the opposite sides of the garden, believing that potatoes will not do well if onions are growing too close. 

Possibly this very kind of folk logic could account for the seemingly opposite curative effects of onions and potatoes I found in American Fork, Utah—that is, potato as drawer vs. onion as absorbee. However, in many folk remedies from curing warts to easing pain, the onion and potato are used similarly. 

Other botanical cures common in the Mormon past and present include the use of milkweed, tobacco juice, catnip, and pine gum for various remedies, cucumber slices for sore eyes, and flaxseed for a number of cures. According to Austin Fife, of all the herbal medicines and stimulants in the Intermountain area, Brigham tea is the one which is of widest application.  In my own collecting and studies, potato and onion cures ran far ahead of Brigham tea in range of application, but this seemingly peculiar Mormon remedy is an important cure-all. The plant, whose scientific name is Ephedra viridis or green ephedra, is commonly called Mormon tea, desert plant, pop weed, or Brigham weed. A common bush ranging from Utah to California, it did and does function as a popular Mormon remedy. Austin Fife, has stated that "faithful Mormons will assure you that the medical value of Brigham tea was a matter of divine inspiration to Brigham Young, hence its name."  However, this statement is misleading. The large majority of "faithful" Mormons today have not heard of Brigham tea—and many of the faithful who have will unhesitatingly assure you that not only is the drinking of such tea not inspired but that naming the weed after a prophet borders on blasphemy—although there are many that do believe in the unlimited healing qualities of the herb. Brigham Young, according to oral tradition, was supposed to have imbibed his namesake regularly, of which I was assured by a number of informants. According to a small book on Dixie folklore, Brigham tea was good for indigestion, for purifying the blood, for fevers, for colds, for bringing out a rash, and for a variety of similar complaints. 

The old man from American Fork, who calls the herb desert plant, claims, together with his wife, that Brigham Young was indeed inspired to introduce the tea. One man, says my informant, swears that if Brigham Young had done nothing but introduce the tea to the Saints he would have done a great work. The old man collects the plant yearly in August in the desert west of Fairfield, Utah; and according to him, Brigham tea is very good for bladder and urinary tract problems, both as cure and preventative, probably because of its mineral content. He thinks the plant is probably rich in copper because of the appearance of the ring in the teapot when the herb is steeped. A sister of his wife uses the tea faithfully for arthritis.

The children and grandchildren of the old couple occasionally drink the tea, which they obtain from their grandfather. The granddaughters are a bit skeptical but believe Brigham Young drank the tea regularly. The daughter, who was cured of sunburn by the potato poultice, is not skeptical but does not keep a supply of the tea on hand like her parents. The couple also makes a tea from chaparral, which they collect occasionally in the St. George area. This herb is supposed to be especially good for arthritis.

Of wide use in the Mormon past, but evidently a dying institution, is the drinking of sagebrush tea. "The common western sagebrush," according to Austin Fife, "vies for first place with Brigham tea in the folk medicine of Mormonia."  A number of informants mentioned this remedy, but among none of those I interviewed was it in current use. As a boy, the old man from American Fork drank the strong tea regularly in the spring as a blood purifier. He said that every spring his father would gather sage and brew a large pot of the tea, from which the entire family would drink for a number of days. In the spring, he said, the foul tasting stuff would cleanse all the impurities from the blood that had accumulated during the winter. Possibly, one of the reasons this remedy has died out when the herb is so common in the West is because of its bitter, unsavory flavor.

Again from Norton County, Kansas, Amy Lathrop reported that the use of sage as a medicinal herb dates from the ancients and that a cure for diphtheria was to inhale the fumes of sage tea. Of course, what Mrs. Lathrop referred to was common garden sage, for which the settlers probably found an easy substitute in the Far West in the form of the omnipresent wild sage.

Possibly, a consideration of the implications of Mormon folk cures, botanical and otherwise, is one problem that arises from a collection of such remedies; and such implications, as discussed earlier, are only evident through a close study of contextual data. About the use of folk medicine, Joseph Smith wrote: "And whosoever among you are sick, and have not faith to be healed, but believe, shall be nourished with all tenderness, with herbs and mild food. . . ."  Smith also said: "And again, verily I say unto you, all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man. ..."  In the light of such statements, one wonders why the Mormon religion did not become a religion espousing folk medicine, which it certainly has not become. Although the acceptability of faith healing—which may rightfully be termed a type of internal magic or magic of the spirit—is common and even encouraged in the church, the external magic of herbal and botanical cures, indeed the whole realm of tangible folk remedies, receives an icy shoulder.

In a letter to Hector Lee, George Albert Smith, eighth president of the church, wrote:

As to folklore regarding weather, planting, butchering, doctoring, etc., I have never heard of any such lore among our people; indeed, their wdiole training would be against the superstitions which usually lie behind such folklore as you seem to have in mind. Whatever there may be would be such as they brought with them from their places of origin and which would be looked upon, I am very sure, by our people today as mere superstitions without any foundation in the doctrines of the church. 

Both tone and content of this letter seem to be in opposition to Joseph Smith's statements, another of which I include here:

Sunday, Sept. 5, 1841. I preached to a large congregation at the stand, on the science and practice of medicine, desiring to persuade the Saints to trust in God when sick, and not in an arm of flesh, and live by faith and not by medicine, or poison; and when they were sick, and had called for the Elders to pray for them, and they were not healed, to use herbs and mild food. 

It may well be that Mormondom has managed, collectively, to almost thoroughly ignore folk medicine because of the exaltation of "science" by the religion. Brigham Young's intense interest, for example, in Othniel Marsh's discovery of Orohippus and other fossil remains, led to a meeting in Salt Lake City between the two about the existence of horses in prehistoric America.  Marsh ascertained their existence, and Young was elated because this was scientific "proof" of one of the disputed assertions of the Book of Mormon. Since it is deemed necessary by a fair share of the Mormon community to prove by any means that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that larger belief remains viable and current. But when science, the true buttress of true religion, through modern medicine has scoffed at folk cures as quackery or worse, then they must go as a sort of sacrificial offering to higher things. So, almost ironically, for a religion with identifiable roots in folk medicine—which roots were once a living part of every Mormon pioneer community—the cures of the folk have gone underground, with little hope of resuscitation even by the health food revival. I mention this because most of my informants, whether weak or strong religious believers, felt that they would be made fun of for belief in the efficacy of folk medicine.

Even though Mormon folk medicine is part of a nearly invisible culture within a culture within a culture, the practice of folk medicine is reality to many of the orthodox in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints. And even though the practice of folk medicine in the Mormon West is merely a vestige of what it once was, it seems to be persistent, almost ritualistic behavior among many today. I use ritual in the sense Mody C. Boatright indicated when he said: "Ritualistic behavior is both repetitive and nonrational."  Of course, all repetitive and nonrational behavior is not ritualistic; but when a Mormon woman, believer in botanical folk cures, slices an onion in a certain way for a specific reason, and applies the poultice in prescriptive manner, then that person is involved in ritualistic behavior. And it is the magic of such behavior, call it placebo or poison, superstition or wonder cure, that almost surely ensures that Mormon folk medicine will remain a part of the Saints in spite of what anyone might say or believe, because folklore is an inextricable thread in the twine of Mormonism.

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